“Student Ejected for Telling Prof There are only 2 Genders,” says Fox News segment.
Behold a college senior telling Tucker Carlson about being forced to apologize and receive critique from classmates after he insisted there are only two genders. The student seems most upset about the treatment he says he received in class and Carlson appears most upset by the idea that any person would believe there are more than two genders. I wasn’t in the class so I can’t comment on what was taught or what transpired. That’s actually not the most concerning part to me (although appropriate classroom behavior from both students and professors is critical). What bothers me is that neither the student nor Carlson seems to know the basic concepts of gender.
Today Saucies, I’ll elucidate these basic concepts. It’s no problem really, I teach this in the first two weeks of my introductory course. But I also want to talk about my larger concern: not that Carlson and the student expressed a difference from my own evidence-backed position, but rather that they expressed distain for learning about these concepts in the first place. This is different from having distain for the concept itself. It’s having distain for knowledge.
1) Carlson and the student believe there are only two genders and their evidence is biologists, biology, science, and biology! Male and female, as Carlson says. Welp, that’s not gender. That’s sex, which is the term we use to explain how science and biology categorize certain bodily differences. So first let’s talk sex: there are more than two. How do I know? Because biology and science notes the existence of intersex bodies. Intersex bodies do not fully adhere to the genital, gonadal, hormonal, and chromosomal criteria medicine uses to assign either male or female sex to bodies, and estimates range as high as 1 in every 250-500 people are born intersex. So yes, there is clear biological evidence that there are more than just male and female bodies. We have two sex categories and also many people whose biology does not snugly fit either category. Up until very recently, we also had a habit of surgically or hormonally altering those bodies to fit our two-sex criteria and also asking parents to keep their children’s intersex status secret. But intersex people exist (have always existed). Perhaps you might take the position that we should continue medically altering these bodies to fit into our sex categories. But that argument doesn’t negate the biological existence of intersex bodies.
2) Let’s talk about gender. It’s a culturally constructed way we understand and organize difference. This is not my opinion, it’s a fact based on scores of peer-reviewed and evidence-based work from scientists that study human organization. Gender is a product of society, even if we feel the purpose of gender is to organize biological phenomena. We gender intersex bodies when we assign them a male or female sex because we’re fitting them into a cultural standard that’s not biologically determined for them. We also gender male and female bodies when we put one in pink and the other in blue, or say one is a better listener and the other better at sports. These are strange and arbitrary cultural divisions that appear to be attached to a biological imperative but are not. How do I know? Well, we used to put boys in pink before World War I because the color was bold and manly and blue was delicate and dainty. In some cultures it’s masculine to have long hair and in others short hair. In some cultures women wear skirts and in other cultures men wear similar garments called kilts. In contemporary western society, we have two genders (man and woman) that are supposed to reflect the two biological sexes (male and female). But the specific standards that define those gender categories changes as culture changes. Perhaps you might take the position that there is the best way or most normal way to order gender around bodies. But that argument doesn’t negate the fact that gender is produced by society, and that other societies do gender differently.
3) Let’s talk about non-western gender. Carlson lists several other genders beyond the two he knows, and he includes Two Spirit and Hijra. These are non-western gender identities. That is to say, they were produced in a society that is different than the one that Carlson lives in. If gender is constructed and if gender rules vary by culture, then why would we assume that all societies everywhere constructed a two gender system just the way we did? Wouldn’t it be equally plausible that other cultures might construct gender in different ways and with different meanings that lead to more than two? Actually, many did and we have scores of evidence-based anthropology, sociology, and history scholarship that proves the existence of these other genders. Perhaps you might take the position that these were deviant identities or that they are not as good as the western gender system. But that argument doesn’t negate the existence of these other genders; their existence is a reality.
4) Let’s go back to western gender. Carlson says a bit mockingly that some people believe there are “infinite genders.” And why can’t there be? If gender is constructed by culture and other cultures have constructed gender beyond two, why can’t we also do that? The notion that there are two distinct genders that should correspond to the two assigned sexes might always be the dominant model in the west. But why couldn’t we produce something else too? We could, we would just have to bend the dominant cultural rules. And agender, genderfluid, and trans people are doing that. Perhaps you might take the position that we should not do this. But that argument doesn’t negate the fact that we could and are.
The “perhaps” arguments I constructed here are contrary to my own beliefs and I think they’re pretty ethnocentric and cruel too. But these are certainly salient positions one might take if they knew the basics of the topic they were discussing. That is to say, these would be educated arguments.
The worst part of the Fox segment is when Carlson asks the student to explain a term introduced in his class—mansplaining—and the student hedges, finally saying “I’m not sure… I think it’s anytime a man speaks really.” I would understand the student being angry if that was what the term means but it doesn’t. He doesn’t know the defintion because he didn’t learn the definition. Carlson asks if terms like mansplaining are measurable according to a “species of social sciences” and the student responds no. But they are. The student is angry, yes, but at what exactly? Does he know the definitions, information, or evidence around the concepts he is against? I assume that since he was introduced to these concepts as part of a college course, he did have the opportunity to learn them.
Once, a student wrote a very negative evaluation of my course, calling it bullshit and postmodern trash. The student then backed this claim by outlining several theories and readings we had covered and arguing why the ideas could have been useful and transformative but are ultimately not. It was, frankly, one of the most affirming evaluations I ever received. I don’t agree with the student but the student produced a coherent argument by weighing the value of materials they had a full and accurate understanding of. My goal is not to indoctrinate students or push a personal agenda. It’s to teach basic concepts that exist in the world so that students can make their own educated decisions. Do I hope those decisions are ethical and empathetic? Yes. But the bottom line is to build a foundation for them to do that work themselves.
The denouement of the Fox segment is Carlson encouraging the student to drop out of college. Not to learn the concepts more fully so as to better refute them. Not to practice honing counter rhetoric based on knowledge and evidence. The topic of the clip is terrible but there is nothing so terrible as Carlson’s advice to quit learning, to remain ignorant of the basic components of issues.
Stay in school kids. Learn how to tell your professors they teach postmodern trash with irrefutable and informed style.